The Problem With Purity

Better feminists than I have written entire books on this topic (see The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women), but damn if this Hairpin interview with a lapsed Christian virgin doesn’t illustrate just how messed up “purity” messages can make young women.

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate Clara’s insights, and I think she’s very brave for sharing her perspectives. She seems quite wonderful, and Jia’s questions were spot-on. It’s a great interview and this isn’t meant as a critique of it, or even of sexual abstention. If people want to abstain from sex until marriage (or abstain from sex until forever, or whenever) that’s great — your body, your choice. I don’t have a problem with choosing to be abstinent until X date or event (your wedding, college, your 18th birthday, your 40th birthday, whatever); I do have a big problem with the Christian language and theory behind the “purity” rationale for waiting until marriage to have sex.

The biggest is the concept of “purity” itself, and the idea that sex somehow makes you impure if you aren’t married. Sex is not sullying; sex is not “dirty” (or, sex can be really dirty, but only if done correctly, and filthy sex hopefully does not disappear once a wedding band is on your finger). While there are male Christian virgins, in the purity framework, men aren’t dirtied by sex; it’s women who are sullied. It’s men who want sex and women who tempt them into it and are then ruined by it. That is… not great. As Clara astutely points out:

What I find way more sexist is the idea that guys “can’t help” their sexual desire. That somehow, it’s harder for a guy to keep his virginity than for a girl to keep hers. I think that’s totally bullshit. Especially the way that it gets played out sometimes within the church: the idea that guys give up their virginity because they can’t help it when there’s a girl in front of them, and girls give up their virginity only because they’ve been pressured. Girls don’t get to want to have sex, ever, within this framework.

She’s right, it is bullshit. But it’s also kind of bullshit to think that not having sex is more “pure” than having sex, especially when she’s having sex with her boyfriend. I realize that in the Christian tradition we’re all sinners and none of us are perfect etc etc, but how exactly does one having a loving and respectful sexual non-marital relationship with a person who thinks that sexual non-marital relationships are bad, impure and less good than non-sexual non-marital relationships? Clara says:

Despite the fact that we’ve had sex, it’s nice to recognize that I’m finally on the same page with someone in terms of purity — we both want it, we both know it’s not easy. So now, the debate isn’t just an internal one that eventually gets silenced by my own desire to do what I want to do. This is an external debate that the two of us can feasibly act upon. We don’t feel guilty about having sex, but we do try to curb it, to keep from having it. We don’t want to make that the central focus of our relationship.

That sounds… also not great. Not making sex the central focus of your relationship, sure, great. But going around and around in the circle of “We shouldn’t be doing this because it’s impure and bad!” and then doing it, and then trying not to do it again, but then doing it again, and then saying you don’t feel guilty except obviously you kind of do? Not a healthy relationship dynamic.

Also not good from a public health standpoint. Not that every sexual interaction needs to be planned, but ideally, sexual interactions would involve some dialogue — about consent, about desire and about risk reduction. The pattern of “trying not to do it again” after feeling badly about doing it in the first place is a recipe for disaster on all three of those dialogue fronts. If you’re not going to do it again, why discuss birth control? Why discuss condom use? Why discuss what you like and what you want, and what your boundaries and triggers and interests are?

You don’t typically plan for something that you’ve decided you’re going to try not to do. By turning sex into a no-no, even among sexually active couples, the purity movement puts people at risk. It turns sex into a furtive act, and sex without negotiation or discussion is a lot more likely to be sex that is physically riskier than it needs to be, or sex that is at best shame-inducing or unfulfilling, and at worst non-consensual.

There’s also the view of sex as something women “have” that they shouldn’t “give away” too soon — like there’s only so much sex in any one woman, and sex is something she does for a man that necessarily requires losing some of herself, and so she should be really careful who she “gives” it to. Whereas men just get sex. The wonderful interviewer, Jia Tolentino, hits the nail on the head when she asks:

That’s really interesting, the idea of “mystique” as a currency. It reminds me of this Naomi Wolf article where she talks to her friend who’s just converted to Orthodox Judaism, who draws sexual power form the fact that her husband is the only one who gets to see her hair and when that idea is put up in contrast to the Girls Gone Wild shoots that Ariel Levy keeps going to, there’s some real, potent sexual power to the idea of the slow reveal. I get it in the abstract, as a personal choice among many.

But I strongly dislike the way this idea is only applied to women, and I also find it weird to describe female sexuality as finite, like you could give too much away and then end up somehow without enough to sustain your partner in marriage or whatever. What do you think about this? You’ll have sex with your husband so many times for so many years, so how could it really matter what you’d done before?

Yes, all of that.

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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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28 Responses to The Problem With Purity

  1. Lolagirl says:

    What’s so insidious about the Christian purity ideology is that they start inculcating their children with it from the time they are born. I was raised Catholic, and I’ve basically spent the last 20 or so years of my adult life deprogramming all of the purity is everything, be a good girl, sex is bad messages I receieved throughout my childhood.

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with people on an individual level deciding they want to abstain until marriage or whatever. But I do think that the general notion of purity until marriage along with all of the other noise that comes along with it (especially the sex is the biggest deal ever, doing it before marriage will ruin you, forever!) is really pretty damaging for men and women alike. I think it would be far better to concentrate on teaching kids about positive interpersonal relationships instead of scaring them about sex.

  2. Arkady says:

    As an asexual, I’ve occasionally pointed out to some virginity-obsessed types how silly they’re being. The response I get, bizarrely, is to be told that because I don’t feel sexual desire at all (and am thus thorougly chaste), I’m actually broken/abused* and in-need-of-fixing, presumably so I can then feel a desire to do stuff that they think I shouldn’t be doing anyway! Apparently the virtue is in resisting temptation, lacking the temptation in the first place is almost as bad as giving in to it.

    Going to heaven with the sanctimonious gits instead of going to Hell with all my awesome atheist/pagan/gay/generally-weird friends does worry me sometimes, but being on the Pill for health issues makes me a slut anyway, so I think I’m set ;-)

    *(I’m lucky enough that none of that is true, no major traumas)

    • Nimue says:

      I’m ace too. Growing up christian I never really “got” what people were talking about with the purity stuff. I didn’t realize I was different: “Purity = we’re not supposed to be having sex = I’m not having sex = neither is everyone else most likely = I’m normal” was what I thought. It wasn’t until MUCH later that I realized that no, everybody else (pretty much) was having sex because they wanted to and I was actually different.

  3. cherrybomb says:

    As a lapsed Baptist (with no desire to return, but not able/willing to undo ALL the programming) I have kind of accepted that I will probably never get over all my sex-related issues, even though I can pin-point exactly where they come from. The best I can do is not pass on the same issues to my child (which is, in part, why I’m not raising him as Christian). Not that he’d be the one feeling sullied by sex, but I don’t want him to view sex as an act that somehow diminishes his partner’s worth.

  4. Hina says:

    I don’t think the last paragraph can be used to argue against people who believe in the purity culture because from what I have heard its the number of people you have sex with(in their words, give yourself to) that matters not the amount of times you have sex

    Another thing I find disturbing is the obsession with someone’s “number.” I’ve heard so many girls worry about their number going up because they don’t want to be sluty. I don’t like the idea of hooking up with randos either and would rather hook up with someone I used to hook up with or have a steady hookup buddy. My reasoning behind it is because sex takes time before its actually really really good and till we’re comfortable enough to have something other than just vanilla sex. Also because the risks involved with hooking up with a lot of people or having one nightstands isn’t worth the risk anymore.

  5. It’s not only Christianity that sees “illicit” sex as dirtying women but not men. In a documentary about honour killings in the UK, a senior prosecutor tasked with inviestigating the phenomenon said he was told by a fellow Muslim: “men are like gold, women are like silk. If gold falls into the mud you can clean it, but if silk falls into the muc it’s ruined”.

  6. Hina says:

    Sorry I clicked enter before finishing up but I would like to add that girls feel the need to not have sex with men even when they like them and want to just because they don’t want to be slutty rather than because they either want to experience good sex or because they care about their health.

    One event like this that comes to mind when one of my Friends called out another friend for hooking up with 6 guys in one semester and how bad that was and tried to shame her instead of showing actual concern. She felt she had that right because she had only had sex with 3 guys that semester and it didn’t matter that this girl didn’t use condoms because she waited couple weeks before having sex with the guys but the other one “gave in” after a few days even though she used a condom every time

  7. Datdamwuf says:

    A person close to me who shall be nameless is married to a girl brought up with this “must be a virgin until married” thing. She interpreted it to me no penetration, so they had every sex act there was except that until he married her. He told me it drove him crazy and he would say, but, she is a nice girl who won’t break her vow…same guy thought Clinton was horrible because he said he didn’t have sex with that woman. It hurts my brain to try to reconcile sex is only sex if a penis penetrates a vagina. It hurts worse when someone has two opposing views on the same topic. Anyhow, I am left wondering if the purity vow is specific about what constitutes sex in the various christian cults.

  8. Datdamwuf says:

    Can you edit my post to say “christian sects” rather than “cults”, I just realized that might offend some folks. thanks!

    • Nimue says:

      I know I’m not representative of everyone, but my initial thought was lol cults…so true in an unfortunately large number of cases.

  9. Brennan says:

    So, I kind of identified with this woman. It sounds a lot like the kind of cycles I would go through when I was first figuring out the whole “sexual desire” thing. The difference being that when I was figuring it out, I didn’t involve other people in my dilemma. TMI about wanking below.

    So, I started doing that *other* thing that the church tells you is dirtybadwrong and don’t-do-it-ever-or-else. There would always be a cycle: “so, that happened”–>”I screwed up”–>”But, it’s not that big a deal”–>”Despite being totally not a big deal, it’s not going to happen again. Ever.”–>”Oh, God, what if there’s something wrong with me/this messes up the rest of my life/future husband won’t want me ect.”–>”Reality check: not a big deal.”–>”But not happening again. Ever.”—–>”So, that happened.”

    The cognitive dissonance made the the whole thing fraught with guilt and not nearly as fun as it otherwise could be. It took a while to sort out what I actually believed, and when I did, I was shocked to discover that my vagina is actually not central to my relationship with God. I think part of my struggle and Clara’s is due to the emphasis on self-denial in the church. “Deny thyself” is presented as a worthy, spiritually-meaningful endeavor in and of itself (thus, those of us who give up chocolate/coffee/cigarettes for Lent, knowing full well that we’ll “slip,” but willing to try it as a discipline anyway.) It feels inherently holy, just knowing that you’re trying to abstain, thus, you could almost hear Clara’s pride that she kept trying to climb that hill, not like all those other people who fell off and gave up. I would argue that self-denial can be meaningful on an individual level, but only if (1) the decision is entirely personal and made without coersion and (2) you make that decision in full knowledge that you’re choosing to abstain (be it from coffee or sex) as a spiritual discipline, and not because that thing is necessarily bad. Neither of these terms can be met in most church cultures today.

    Wow, I started a paragraph with remarks on the fun-ness of wanking and ended with a discussion of the role of self-denial in Christian life. All on Feministe. Someone needs to take my internet privileges away.

    • Hannah says:

      Brennan (comment 9),

      You should keep your internet privileges because I highly doubt (going on my own personal experience) that that cycle is uncommon, I know I used to try all these loopholes to distance myself from what I now know is natural and normal. I think a person can’t help but absorb that type of conditioning (I’m a vetern of catholic schools and therefore got most of my sex info from the internet (not a good resource unsurprisingly) but I also had a pro-sex ed mother who was willing to discuss these things with me (she’s also an atheist (not sure how connected these things are))

  10. Dane says:

    This! So much this! I was raised in an evangelical culture that was obsessed with purity. When I was 15 (and a virgin) I was sexually assaulted, and it was so much worse for me because I thought of myself as “ruined.” I got some therapy and started dealing with it, and started thinking that if I was already ruined, what was stopping me from having sex that I actually wanted and that might be fun? Now I realize how incredibly fucked up it is that someone had to take my virginity from me before I could give myself permission to explore something I was incredibly curious about. I think I would have eventually moved away from purity culture and discovered how awesome sex if that hadn’t happened to me but it would have taken longer. Not that I would have that happen again if I could go back in time.

  11. mh says:

    I grew up in this culture, and remember the shaming way my mother described a friend’s daughter who had become pregnant in what one could guess was exactly the scenario Jill described above. She married her boyfriend while pregnant, which I think would have happened anyway…but it does make one wonder how many Christian marriages are driven by shame and circumstances.

    I also remember the look on this girl’s father’s face once when the pregnancy – of his grandchild – came up in a neutral conversation years later. Like he was ashamed of this act that was none of his damn business in the first place. Can’t imagine the layers of damage beyond the obviously visible that this single, stupid ideology caused this family and this young woman.

    To me, the “purity” ideal is similar to biblical rules about pork. Back when public health was challenging to manage, people depended on their community. I think it was just simpler to create a shame/superiority framework around behaviors that might have consequences than to find a just way to handle things. Pregnancy without financial support was as serious an issue as sickening people with tainted meat, and the threat of exclusion from society was a powerful, if arbitrary, tool to protect the community.

    Of course, modern Christians are willing to discuss eating pork in these terms – as a somewhat bizarre protection of public health – but blindly cling to the same ideas about sex and sexuality.

  12. robotile says:

    I don’t know… the Christian obsession with purity is a bit weird (especially as a just-for-girls thing), but Clara herself comes off as a normal, well-adjusted person with some mild issues about sex, just like most people have. She explicitly calls out the sexism behind Christian purity messages but has decided that keeping sexuality for one person is a good goal to aim for. I don’t think that the attitude of “we’re on the same page about purity, try not to have sex” is so terrible for her situation. She’s obviously made it to her mid-twenties without getting knocked up and she doesn’t seem to have internalized terrible shame. It almost seems like a fun little game she and her SO play–see how long we can go without sex. Not everyone is into it, but a lot of people get off on delayed gratification. In some ways I think this interview is misleading, because she actually sounds really healthy compared to what she could be given the mentality she was raised with.

  13. onetinythought says:

    Yikes. How people are raised to view sex is so much part of who they grow up to be that it almost becomes invisible, but very much part of their behavior.

    Slightly off-topic, but I believe relevant to the discussion:

    My husband was raised Catholic, the youngest of four. He was so well schooled to stay away from sex that it frightened him, and he remained a virgin until his twenties. Starting early in his life, he became addicted to porn. Apparently, this activity was “safe” enough, but it has ruined our marriage, because he has always been somewhat reluctant to have sex with me, preferring instead his porn habit, which seems normal to him, along with lying to me about it. We are now separated after several years of marriage counseling, and the extent of his porn habit is only now becoming clear. He says he is going to get specialized treatment, but only time will tell.

    I am in my mid fifties, and have been in this relationship for fifteen years. It saddens me to think that the way my husband was raised to view sex has wrecked our marriage.

    Sexual purity.

  14. Trysm says:

    To Jill Filipovic:

    I am 64 years old and felt liberated by your encouragement that sex is not dirty. “Dirty sex” is a remaining idea I keep thinking I have overcome. “Dirty sex” is leftover from my family’s response to finding out uncle molested me all my years until I was 8. And I truly love liberating the idea there is only so much female sex to last a lifetime from its moralistic, sexist, pre-effective-contraception biased basis.
    I am so grateful to realize once again how antique are these ideas from my dysfunctional childhood. Thank you.

  15. robotile says:

    onetinythought, that’s awful!

    Plenty of people grow up fine even within purity culture, but many, many get seriously warped by it.

    The other alternative–teaching people that sexuality is natural and health and that you should do what feels good to you as long as you are not harming/coercing others or seriously harming yourself–seems to seriously screw up far fewer people. So obviously, this mentality wins.

  16. Melody says:

    My family is religious, but I’m a atheist. I constantly wonder if I have abstained from sex till now as a result of the culture I was brought up in.

    I don’t know if I intend to get married in the future and therefore don’t have that as criteria.

    My criteria is to be in love with whomever I do end up having sex with.

    I’m 22 now.

  17. Intissar says:

    waiting for the sex until the marriage makes a man proud of his woman because nobody touched her before him and that thought makes him feel that all of that waiting was worth it , worth to be special in someone’s life , worth to be the first and only lover that a woman had . it’s also good for the man’s sexual confidence (knowing that he’s the only man in her love life makes him feel that he’s enough to satisfy his woman’s desire) so basically this process will cut short of the love affairs that destroys the honesty and the trust between a couple
    so i guess after all a woman not giving up her virginity is not JUST because of the idea of “unpure” .

    • Emburii says:

      If that’s all a man has to be proud of, that a woman or partner can’t tell that said individual is terrible in bed because they haven’t known anything else, I pity that man (and the person they’re with).
      Oh, also, please cite the evidence for your claim that precommital sex ‘destroys the honesty and trust between a couple’.

    • jm says:

      “waiting for the sex until the marriage makes a man proud of his woman because nobody touched her before him….so i guess after all a woman not giving up her virginity is not JUST because of the idea of “unpure” ”

      Nope, it still is JUST because of the idea of impurity. You even opened with it. And let’s note that you also made a woman’s sexuality all about a man. Who cares about what the woman wants or feels about something involving her own body?! What is SHE getting out of this?

      And I know more couples who were both virgins (or at least said so) when they married, and someone cheated than I know couples who were not both virgins (or at least said so), and both have been faithful, so you might want to reconsider that whole it “cuts short love affairs” thing, too.

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  19. Kelly says:

    The main thing that rubs me the wrong way about the concept of “purity” is the control external people/the church feels they have the right to exert over a person’s (read: woman’s) body. And it’s not just the Christian church or other religious institutions.

    At 18 I was having severe pain trying to lose my virginity. I told my doctor about it and was told “well you don’t have to worry about that now, you’re young,” and my issues were brushed off for another year and a half (and not fully corrected for 3). This has caused me years of physical pain and severe anxiety around sex that I’m still trying to work through.

    At 18 years old I should have been trusted with a decision I was making with my own body and not subtly judged and silenced by a medical professional. Purity culture is in your face in the Christian church, but it is subtle and pervasive throughout American culture, which I think can be just as, if not more damaging.

  20. Jen says:

    When I was a big kid, not quite a teenager, I developed an idea of what type of relationship I wanted to be in when I would lose my virginity. I didn’t think it was necessary to wait until I was married to lose my virginity. I didn’t know how old I would be when I lost my virginity. Then I found myself in love and I really really really wanted to have sex with him and it was sweet and innocent and silly and awkward and wonderful and safe when I lost my virginity. After we broke up, I was presented with opportunities for sex and I took them whether I wanted to or not because now that I wasn’t a virgin anymore, I didn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to. I didn’t know what I could possibly want to hold out for. How sad. I wish I had been taught that my sexuality was precious, not my virginity.

  21. Rae says:

    Wow, I’m also in Arkady’s position of being asexual and being surrounded by people who encourage me to wait until marriage – only, I’m not “out” yet, so everyone assumes I’m hetero and just not dating at the moment. And stuff like that is reasons that I’m nervous to ever be “out” to people at my church.

    But, back to the original topic, somehow, as someone who’s asexual, I’m seriously one of the best-sex-educated people in my social circle. So I’ve ironically ended up helping more than a few young women who were/are ostensibly staying virgins until marriage obtain and understand how to use birth control of various sorts.

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